Diner: House that Beer Built

Christy's and Lenhardt's serves authentic Hungarian and German in a former Moerlein mansion

Mar 9, 2005 at 2:06 pm

I have to confess that Hungarian cuisine is not at the top of my favorite-foods list. I had a roommate from Hungary once who kept a treasured tin of high-octane Hungarian paprika in the kitchen like a secret dope stash. He applied it liberally to the malodorous, all-meat-all-the-time concoctions he cooked, filling the apartment with a fragrant bloom that smelled like a packing plant.

And when it comes to German food, I've got even more serious baggage: A stormy, long-ago relationship with a totally Teutonic girlfriend from the Bundes-republik still undermines my ability to be objective when it comes to all things German (beer excepted).

So imagine just how thrilled I was to get to review a restaurant that serves both Hungarian and German food. I was definitely not thinking good things as I trudged up the steps of Christy's and Lenhardt's in Clifton on a recent Saturday. Over the past few years I had driven past the place dozens of times, marveling at the time-worn sign and the blast-from-the-past look of the place, without ever once even thinking about going inside. I was in for a pleasant surprise. The food was pretty good, the atmosphere unique and the staff welcoming and friendly.

The restaurant's history is intriguing.

Here's the short version: Some Lenhardts came to America from Yugoslavia in the 1950s and opened a restaurant. In 1965, the restaurant moved to 151 W. McMillan, formerly the Moerlein mansion, where it's been ever since. The mansion has a colorful past. Built as a wedding present for beer-maker Christian Moerlein's daughter (sure beats a blender), the house later did time as a doctor's office, an army barracks, a fraternity house and a private club. The original Lenhardts' granddaughter, Christine Windholtz, is now driving the business, bringing third-generation savvy to the operation by opening an underground rathskeller — called Christy's in 1991 — and a beer garden in 1998.

While some might think the interior dated and frumpy, I found it quirky and charming, offering a glimpse into upper-class life in the age of the robber barons. Lurking behind the newer addition that serves as an entrance and bar, and among the restaurant's many mirrors and contemporary shelving and furnishings, are carved wood detailing, lofty ceilings and painted ceilings — all in remarkable shape considering what the building has been through.

We kicked things off with the Sauerkraut Balls ($5.25), globs of sauerkraut and ground meat that are breaded and deep fried. Moist and satisfying, they were better than I expected. The filling, though, could have used some salt. I had hoped to see more authentic German-Hungarian items like this on the appetizer menu, but it's evident that Christy's and Lenhardt's has had to evolve over the years to please the sophisticated palates of the mobs of undergrads who rule Clifton's bars and restaurants. As a result, the appetizers are more Buffalo Wild Wings than Budapest, with every possible fried food group represented. (I am guessing the Jalapeno Poppers are not an old family recipe.)

For entrées, we went traditional, all the way. My companion ordered the Hungarian Goulasch ($7.95). This Hungarian style meat stew was hearty and satisfying, although a little light on the meat chunks. I ordered the Chicken Paprikasch ($7.95), a chicken breast swimming in a thick tasty sauce made with lots of onions and, of course, paprika. Both came with spaetzle, small but filling stringy-looking dumplings. To cover the German side of the menu, I sampled the Sauerbraten ($8.95). The very tender marinated beef roast came swimming in a light, thin gravy, and was accompanied by an enormous, fried, potato pancake.

Desserts ($4.50) were mixed. My companion powered through his Dobosch Torte, a multi-level treat of delicate layers that was both light and decadent. I tried the Strudel and had a hard time hacking through a crust that should have been light and flaky. The filling, though, was excellent: soft, lightly sweetened apples loaded with cinnamon.

Service was friendly but spastic, in a college-student-wearing-a-T-shirt kind of way. Our server seemed more focused on keeping the plates coming out fast than tracking where we were in our meal. Desserts landed on the table while one entrée plate was still there, creating an unpleasant pileup. And all this in the formal dining room of the former mansion. The Moerleins would have been appalled. At these prices, however, it's hard to demand fine dining. Christy's and Lenhardt's offer a good value and, if you've never been, it's definitely worth checking out for traditional, hearty food served in once-regal surroundings. ©

Go: 151 W. McMillan, Clifton

Call: 513-281-3600

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 4-10 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday.

Prices: Reasonable

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken, pork, some fish

Accessibility: Four steps up to the front door.

Grade: B-